Today’s NY Times has an article (by Stacy Albin) called “You Say Prosciutto, I Say Pro-SHOOT, and Purists Cringe.” I had hopes for this article; the local variant of Italian spoken in New York and New Jersey (I don’t know if it extends to other parts of the Northeast) has always fascinated me, and I’d love to see a good analysis of it. But this being the Times, my hopes were not particularly high, and they were not fulfilled. As was to be expected, the article nods in the direction of actual linguistics (“In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common”) but basically wallows in the lowest sort of purist chauvinism (“As for the linguistically challenged, who mangle ‘prosciutto’…”). Anyway, here are some excerpts:

Ann Gustafson can discuss food – especially Italian food. She spent many days in the Bronx with her Sicilian grandmother, Sebastiana Ceraolo, learning how to cook with mozzarella. Only Mrs. Gustafson did not call it “mozzarella.” She said “mozzarell.”
Not to many New Yorkers or New Jerseyans. (Doesn’t Tony Soprano drop his final vowels?) Not to some vendors at the annual Feast of San Gennaro in Little Italy this week. But it makes Italian teachers, the purists who love the language just as Dante wrote it, wince.
They suffer prosciutto (pro-SHOOT-toe) becoming pro-SHOOT, calzone (cal-TSO-nay) becoming cal-ZONE and pasta e fagioli (PAH-stah eh faj-YOH-lee) becoming pasta fasul (fa-ZOOL)…
Neither grandma nor anyone in her neighborhood, the Morris Park section of the Bronx, which had a large enclave of Italian immigrants, ever challenged Mrs. Gustafson’s pronunciation. And neither did the Italian butcher who pronounced his final vowels.
“The Italians – they don’t correct,” Mrs. Gustafson, 34, said. “They’re not like the French, who will correct you.”
Stefano Albertini, who is the director of New York University’s Italian cultural center, Casa Italiana Zerilli-Marimò, agreed. “Generally speaking, Italians are rather grateful to anyone who speaks in Italian,” he said. “They think Italian comes in so many varieties and accents.”
In fact, in some parts of Italy, the dropping of final vowels is common. Restaurantgoers and food shoppers in the United States ended up imitating southern and northern dialects, where speakers often do not speak their endings, Professor Albertini said.
Liliana Dussi, a retired New York district director for the Berlitz language schools, said many first- and second-generation Italians whose ancestors immigrated to the United States before World War I were informally taught Italian expressions and the names of food, some of which has ended up part of everyday language in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
And Gregory Pell, an assistant professor at Hofstra University who teaches Italian, said that because of the way double consonants were spoken, such as the double “t” in manicotti, Americans might not clearly hear the last “ee” sound. When New Yorkers drop their endings, he said, “it’s become a new word and its own version.”
Professor Albertini, speaking from an educated, native Italian’s perspective, said “it makes us cringe sometimes at the beginning, but we get used to it.”
Ms. Dussi said that she did hear some lovely Italian spoken in New York, which she attributed to widespread use of computerized language lessons and an emphasis on education. American universities teach the standardized version, which is based on 13th-century Florentine vernacular and pronunciations.
And only once in her 20 years in working for Berlitz did a student specifically ask to learn a dialect, Ms. Dussi said. That student worked as an agent for the F.B.I. and wanted to speak like a Sicilian.

To correct that last misapprehension, Sicilian is not a dialect but a separate language (Ethnologue, Wikipedia). And here‘s a good description of the various forms of Venetan, many of which drop final vowels (paron ‘owner, boss’ for Standard Italian padrone).
Anyway, if you know of a good study of New York (Proshoot) Italian, please let me know!
Update. Mark Liberman has a response from Stefano Taschini at Language Log; I was very happy to learn the linguistic provenance of “pastafazool”:

Gallo-italic dialects (Lombardo, Piemontese, Emiliano, and, in particular, Bolognese), have a rather different phonology from standard Italian. In these dialects many words end in a consonant but they cannot be seen as an apocope of an Italian word. The “fasul” [fa’zu:l] , common to Gallo-italic dialects, Veneto and Friulano, is not immediately reconducted to the Italian “fagioli” [fa’??li] (Pasta e fagioli is a typical northern dish).


  1. Douglas Davidson says

    The article takes a few random stabs at interpreting what is going on, but it makes no real effort to distinguish informal speech vs. Italian dialect variation vs. Americanisms. For example, off the top of my head I would classify pro-SHOOT as the first, pasta fa-ZOOL as the second, and cal-ZONE as the third. But my knowledge of Italian dialects is pretty negligible.

  2. At last, an explanation of why my Mom (who grew up in a heavily Italian neighborhood in New Jersey, but is not herself of Italian descent) does exactly what the article says about manicotti (although she doesn’t do it for all of the examples given). I had no idea it was a regional pronunciation.

  3. I’ve often heard it pronounced “mani-GOTT,” with dialectal intervocalic voicing.

  4. Aren’t the white beans* called fagioli in Italian, called fajool in one or more Middle Eastern languages? Is the word borrowed into or from Italian?
    *Actually I think (and this may well be wrong) that fagioli are the small white beans we Americans call navy beans and fajool are the large white beans we Americans call fava beans…

  5. And no-one speaks Italian just like Dante wrote it. Not even the Florentines do. Not even Dante did.

  6. Jeremy: You’re thinking of Arabic fasulya ‘white beans.’ The word is widespread around the Mediterranean (Latin faselus, Greek phaselos, if I’m remembering correctly), and I don’t know who got it from whom when. But they’re all white beans; the fava or broad bean is somethng else entirely.
    sara: Quite so.

  7. Thanks, LH!

  8. Garrigus the Occasional says

    I was going to send this to you but I figured you’d see it & have a reason for commenting or not. This was an appallingly bad article. One should take a look at the movie Padre padrone to get a sense of how standard Italian was being spread to the provinces a few decades ago.

    It’d be delicious if the author were descended from a family called ‘Albini’!

  9. Can I voice my theory (which is mine, of course) on why the Italians don’t pay much attention to different pronunciations: the verbal component plays only partial role in the message, gesticulation and facial expression are valid parts of it too. The question is, now – are gestures accompanying the speech in the North and in the South the same or somebody get confused with certain bodily expressions when moved geographically?
    Another theory (and I can’t claim to be a primary source on that one, alas) is that Italia became one state much later than France and all this different patches in the quilt still feel equally independent, at least in their language. So they can always attribute pronunciation variations to the other person being from this or that “city-state + countryside”, and make no big deal out of that.
    Does this make any sense?

  10. I suspect you’re absolutely right about the quilt theory; people in Rome probably feel no personal stake in how somebody from the Veneto speaks, and vice versa. I’d be interested to hear an Italian’s response, though.

  11. All you have to do is drive around the Apennines for a few days to understand the origins of Italian linguistic (and political) diversity. It would be shocking if Friulians could understand Sicilians, and vice versa, without a (Tuscan) lingua franca.
    Fagioli are common beans, Phaseolus vulgaris, which come in a multitude of cultivars with local common names, all of which originated in the new world. It would be interesting to know what the Romans and Greeks meant by it, as they had distinct words for all of the old-world pulses (Faba, Cicer, Lens).
    And to answer one of your original questions, LH, similar pronunciations are found in New England and Philadelphia Italian communities, largely formed, like those in NY, by immigrants from the mezzogiorno.

  12. Ah, thanks! I love getting my questions answered.

  13. Larry Brennan says

    My grandmother’s second husband was Italian-American, born in Brooklyn, but was raised speaking only the dialect of his family (from Campania) and/or the local Italian lingua franca. He didn’t really learn English until grade school. His relatives had a nasty habit of speaking in front of my grandmother in Italian, and it was pretty clear that their intent was to do some trash-talking about her.
    She decided to enroll in some Italian classes, without telling anyone, but this was of marginal help, since their dialect was rather far afield of the standard Italian she was studying. So she explained her situation to her teacher who cued her in to some of the typical grammatical and proncounciation foibles of her in-laws, and drilled her on exactly how to correct them with maximum condescension.
    They never spoke Italian around her again.
    BTW – I’ve got the NY food pronounciations, and it drives at least one of my Italian friends (she’s from Padua) totally nuts.

  14. proSHOOT, the Americanized version of the Neopolitan accent on the word prosciutto, no? I was in Napoli recently and was astounded at how the sounds around me were like being in an Italian area of New York, New Jersey, etc…then I was like wait a minute…

  15. I am of Italian descent and in my home, in the dish pasta fagioli (fa-zool), the beans are not navy or fava or pinto but cannellini beans. They are also large and white.

  16. Regarding the NY Times article about Italian food pronunciation in the NY area…Growing up in Brooklyn, even my Irish mother would go to the deli for a pound of “Gahba-GOOL” (capicola).

  17. Julieann Ruggiero-Swanson says

    As I sit in my office reading the comments on this message board, I find myself laughing out loud. This is just how my family spoke in my house growing up and now that I am adult, I find that I get some of the strangest looks when I pronounce my words the say way. Thanks for sharing, I’m saving this page to show my friends that I’m not a nut!!!!
    Julieann Ruggiero-Swanson

  18. “The Italians — they don’t correct,” Mrs. Gustafson, 34, said. “They’re not like the French, who will correct you.””

    Maybe not in America, but they sure do in Italia and also in Australia,
    The few things they do not correct you on are some place names like Roma or Sicily

  19. That student worked as an agent for the F.B.I. and wanted to speak like a Sicilian.

    As a good Gricean, it immediately comes to my mind that this may mean ‘speak Standard Italian like a Sicilian’. (As a good Gricean, it does not immediately come to my mind that it means ‘like a particular Sicilian’.) But after all, though Sicilian is not a dialect, it is a dialetto, and that may be what the Berlitz teacher was thinking. I wonder if the agent got what he wanted.

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